July 2021 Vol. 76 No. 7

Editor's Log

Old Times, Good Times, More to Come

By Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

Sometimes, I like to rattle around in the old attic that is my brain. 

This year, 2021, marks an auspicious occasion for Underground Construction magazine. We’re celebrating our 75th anniversary of providing the most comprehensive coverage of the projects, technology, cutting-edge developments and evolving markets that comprise the underground infrastructure. 

Which brings me back to my attic of the mind. While I wasn’t around (thankfully!) during the early years of the magazine, I have been present for almost 30 years. In fact, I was very much involved in 1996 when we celebrated our 50th anniversary. I wrote much of the copy and history for that special event. 

So, when it came time to create plans for our 75th anniversary, countless memories stirred and surfaced of good times and amazing people that I still call friends today. Unfortunately, some of those extraordinary people are no longer with us. 

It’s hard to imagine the state of our technology in 1946. Backhoes didn’t exist. Excavators were called track-hoes and only the concept of the machine remains obvious in today’s equipment. Tractors with a blade evolved into full-scale crawler dozers. 

Notably, without much of these equipment advances, the modern pipeline infrastructure would not have been possible. Further, the initial ride-along trencher was invented by Ed Malzahn in the late 1940s and that really set the utility industry on fire. 

For the past 30 years of my experience, I’ve been witness to some amazing trends and events as well. 

I observed horizontal directional drilling advancing from a novel concept to a disruptive influence type of technology. I recall sitting in at brown-bag lunches for pipeline companies. These lunches were hosted – and financed – by contractors such as Marcus and Dicky Laney, Eric Skonberg, Grady Bell, Neil Smith, Herb Fluharty, Jim Ellis and many more notable industry figures. 

Together, these competitors of a fledging industry found the spirit of cooperation and established the credibility and practicality of HDD to the pipeline markets. In the early 1990s, directional crossings were sometimes viewed as optional. Today when designing a pipeline, HDD crossings are the first thing considered and developed. 

Also in the early ’90s, HDD continued to go small with Ditch Witch and Vermeer being the constants in the rapidly evolving technology. During the fiber boom of the late ’90s, HDD of all sizes was technologically advanced and established as a permanent fixture for underground infrastructure. 

Compact equipment, which had been around in some form for many years, also went through a rapid expansion mode starting in the ’90s, but really took off after the turn of the century. Today, it is a rare job site, indeed, that doesn’t have some kind of compact equipment in use. 

Rehabilitation in various, limited forms had been around since the first cured-in-place liner job by Eric Wood in 1971. Insituform was born. Rehab continued to steadily develop and expand with other iterations still being actively developed and refined today. 

Underground Construction started its still industry-exclusive annual Municipal Sewer & Water Outlook in 1997. We’ve learned a lot in 24 years of research and study. In those early surveys, the dollars spent on the rehabilitation and potable water markets were relatively small, compared to sewer construction and repair spending. Now, both of those market sectors have steadily grown in significance and spending to rival new sewer installation budgets. 

The majority of all these technology breakthroughs over the last 30 years can be classified into the “trenchless” category. Starting with auger boring, pipe ramming and piercing tools several decades ago, trenchless methods exploded with the advent of HDD and CIPP. Today there are scores of applications and variations of technologies in the trenchless realm. 

Just as quickly, the trenchless novelty has worn off and become a standard application on job sites. The sizzle may be gone, but the positive applications remain. Hybrid job sites – combining open-cut and trenchless – are now just a regular part of daily work. 

Our 75th birthday is certainly worth commemorating. At the annual UCT conference in Nashville, July 13-15, we celebrated in a mask-free environment – the first time that’s happened for this industry since March 2020. A special pavilion included an industry timeline, summaries, magazine covers and even vintage print editions for perusal.  
We raised a toast with many friends. 

The underground infrastructure industry rolled into 2021 with amazing confidence after a terrifying year of pandemic and its related market ripple effects. But with few hiccups and COVID-19 in retreat, the essential industries of underground infrastructure have tackled the growing workloads with the typical enthusiasm  
and determination we’ve grown to expect from our magnificent markets. 

And like the industry that Underground Construction has been such an integral part of for so long, we dare to be optimistic about the next 75 years of discovery and technological developments that drive our markets. 

The future is underground.

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